Intercultural Theology, Missiology and Mission Studies -Observations and Perspectives-

Eberhard Werner

Werner [at]



Missiology and Mission Studies – A Location. 1

Recent Developments in the Church and theological Education. 2

Religious awakening – Environmental Variables. 3

Current Intercultural Theology. 4

The Origins of the Church – Priestly and Prophetic Ministry. 4

Future Prospects. 6

Summary. 7

Bibliography. 8



“Intercultural Theology” as a relatively new academic discipline deals with interdisciplinary discourses. How it is perceived, what it wants to be and where it is striving to go, points to a broad spectrum of ideas and perspectives. The professional discussion differs from the opinion of many. The very name alone leads many people in a direction that is not even desired in the discipline. A few key points will be discussed here. Ultimately, however, it is a matter of presenting the relationship between missionary studies, missiology, intercultural theology and theology. The different fields of action are closely interlinked, in some cases very interlinked. Which orientations, overlaps and separations can be identified?

Missiology and Mission Studies – A Location

“Missiology” is a term familiarized to theology from the Anglophone world. In 1867 the first official chair was introduced in Edinburgh. It existed only briefly. Nevertheless, Scotland remained an outstanding sending nation of Christian aid workers for a long time. At the same time, the training of Christian cultural brokers[1] shifted to the theological or secular sphere. The latter, for example, in the case of medical, nursing, translational, linguistic or economic development aid. From the very beginning, missiology was in a critical balancing act with theology. To this day, the church does not dispute the need for research on the subject area of “mission”, but emphasizes the superfluousness of its own scientific disciplines or assigns the subject area to theology. The local national church is determined by its academic theology. Missiological institutions, on the other hand, are often private in nature and globally oriented. Martin Kähler (*1835-†1912) described mission as the “mother of theology”, referring to the New Testament’s reflection on missionary church practice (Kähler 1908). With the work of Gustav Warnecke (*1834-†1910), one can speak of a German academic “mission science”. It began with his chair in Halle in 1897, with Joseph Schmidlin (*1876-†1944) and his Catholic chair at the University of Münster in 1914. It was then that missiological research from this denomination began. He defined missiology as “systematic knowledge, research and presentation of the Christian spread of faith in the non-Christian world” (Schmidlin 1962:453). For a long time Münster, together with Louvain in Belgium, were the driving forces behind Catholic missiological think tanks. While the former understood “mission” as the salvation of souls, the latter interpreted it as the spread of the church. In the Second Vatican Council, a compromise was found in Ad Gentes Chapter 1 Paragraph 6 from 1965, which linked the two:

“The proper purpose of this missionary activity is evangelization, and the planting of the Church among those peoples and groups where it has not yet taken root.”

With the end of military-expansionary colonialism, from the mid-1960s onwards, especially from North Africa and the Middle East (Jenkins 2006:91), the era of governmental research on the topic of mission was reduced in Europe. This led to the emergence of postcolonial studies, which critically evaluated colonialism and based on deconstructivism questioned its sociological and ethnographic constructs and discourses. Missiology was based on the social sciences. In the private sector, scientific training initiatives were established, which integrated mission sciences into the theological area (e.g. academies, Bible schools, Christian colleges). Private institutions for the training of Christian cultural brokers trusted that Christian development workers in universities were preparing for their ministry or offered their own non-academic training courses (e.g. until 2008 the seminar for language methodology at Wycliff Germany). From the 1980s onwards, the public perception of “mission” as a colonialist, militant-fundamentalist church activity also went hand in hand. Not only outwardly directed global Christian development aid (“outward mission”), but also inwardly directed diaconal work (“inward mission”), church building and church planting were very controversial in the postmodern 1980s. The state churches themselves were critical of non-church Christian approaches. They pushed free-church or non-church groups into the vicinity of sects and prohibited cooperation. But even more they set narrow limits to the internal renewal movement, so that it left the churches, such as the Ansgar churches (e.g. Schmid 2003). In the Catholic world, after some initial hesitation and critical scrutiny, the Catholic-Charismatic Renewal was incorporated into the Church by Pope John II in 1998. The first wave of mass exodus from the church ran parallel to a slow decline in church deaconry, such as the Protestant deaconesses in Baden Württemberg or Rheinhessen. Church structures were rejuvenated and a gradual decline in the number of large churches began, which continues to this day. In addition, the social-transformational church approaches started in the 1960s, such as district renewal or ecological renewal programmes (Easter march), were handed over to political or social cooperation partners in the 1980s, right up to nationalization. Church social work was reduced considerably to voluntary work.

Recent Developments in the Church and theological Education

In the academic world, few state organizations of mission studies had prevailed at the price of being subordinated to theology. The academic consolidation of the mission-scientific institutions led to a narrowing to the description of historical and state Christian development aid. At the same time, a wave of American and Anglophone Christian development aid workers began to establish churches in Europe in the free church area from 1970 onwards (Wagner 1993:18-22). They caught the mass exodus from the state church to “free church” communities. Local and national training courses such as discipleship training, Bible schools and theological seminars have been and continue to be inspired by the founding of private missiological institutions. Highly rated American institutions mark the developments. The Fuller Seminary (Pasadena, California; founded in 1947 by Charles E. Fuller), the William Carey International University (Pasadena; founded in 1977 by Ralph D. Winter), Moody Bible Institute (Chicago; founded in 1886 by Dwight Lyman Moody) or, in Europe, the All Nations Christian College (UK, London) or the Dutch Cornerstone – WEC International College (NL, Beugen) should be mentioned. They are distinguished by their creative independence from the existing state theological institutions. Many Christian development workers trained in these institutions implement this missiological creativity in Europe and worldwide.

On the other hand, the state institutions dealing with “missiology” in the German-speaking world experience dominance and close links to theology. Two different currents developed: a state university academic level, which was open only to its own church members with higher education qualifications (e.g. the German Abitur at 13th grade), and a parallel non-public free-church missiological orientation, which accepted both Abitur holders and other school-leaving qualifications. The latter were interested in practical training and the former in academic accreditation. During this phase, academic circles were formed outside the established church-university institutions, which were concerned with missiology issues (e.g. the church renewal movement; the action Persecuted Christians; the Working Group for evangelical Mission – today briefly missiotop).

Religious awakening – Environmental Variables

With the advent of Islam, especially the fundamentalist expansion of Islam at the turn of the millennium, a renewed religious awakening of the Church of the West began, as could be observed after the two world wars. This again stimulated public interest in “missiology”. The American-led military alliance with the West also led to a new reflection on Western church activities in Europe. In particular, the terrorist unrest that broke out everywhere and was perceived as a threat, first in North Africa triggered by the “Arab Spring” (2011), led to a noticeable reconsideration. Local Christian development aid in the focal countries of the Near and Middle East and North Africa came to the fore. Suddenly this work was attractive not only from a church-diaconal but also from a political point of view. The waves of migration to Europe opened up ethnic-linguistic insights into the work on the ground for European church members and shed new light on the service of Christian cultural mediators. Besides economic interests (economic refugees), the causes include the Syrian war (since 2011), the attempted establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in Iraq and Syria under ISIS (Arab Daesh, in public view since 2014), the Western military Afghanistan initiative or the withdrawal of the Western military from these areas (e.g. USA 2016) and the repeated international sanctions imposed by Iran.

The official Middle Eastern lingua franca are High Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Russian. They are supplemented by Sorani (Central Kurdish) in Northern Iraq and Kurmanji (Eastern Turkey, Northern Syria), which is not proclaimed officially but tolerated as an inofficial language. They are now needed in European migrant work, as is the cultural knowledge of the North African, Near and Middle Eastern peoples. The Christian churches of this geographical area, whether historically grown or founded by Christian development workers, came into public awareness because they were persecuted by terrorist groups (e.g. Daesh in Eastern Syria) and state organisations (e.g. in Iran). These developments triggered memories such as the persecution and extermination of the Armenians (1894-1896; 1910, 1914-1915) during the transition of the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. Church and political forces demanded official recognition from politicians. The issues surrounding the occurrence of Christian martyrdom and persecution of Christians caused a wave of solidarity, willingness to integrate and public outrage. A strengthening of church forces and Christian values has been accompanied by a nationalistic-political orientation in recent years.

On the Catholic side, the reflection on social justice is to be mentioned. This orientation of the South American Pope Francis (*1936-) and the situation in many African, South and Central American countries, which is perceived as social injustice, leads to economic migration movements, which in turn generate political unrest. Since its liberation-theological discourse in the 1960s, the global church has increasingly been pushed into the tension of social responsibility. The transcultural discourses listed here form the historical background and thus the social context of the emergence, orientation and focus of “intercultural theology”.

Current Intercultural Theology

With the introduction of the discipline “Intercultural Theology” as a university-relevant subject, the determination of the relationship to established missiology or to the mission sciences, which is increasingly unfolding in the German-speaking world, and to theology is being rekindled. The position paper of the German Society for Missiology (DGMW) and the Scientific Society for Theology (WGTh) from the year 2005 emphasizes this relationship. In the course of the discourses three directions can be identified:

1) a new subject,

2) a new term for the well-known subject mission science or the more recent missiology and finally

3) complementing or supplementing missiology.

In the above-mentioned position paper the latter are complementarily proposed. Religious studies, missiology and ecumenical theology should be closely interlinked within the framework of intercultural theology. This is justified by transnational, transcultural and interreligious discourses (especially Wrogemann 2012). An expansion due to globalization and digitalization seems indispensable to the initiators.

I would like to point to the history of Christian theology as the third strand of this development. The history of theology is part of the history of the church and mission. At the same time, there are special features which need to be emphasized. Such emphases can be demonstrated in the same way for other areas, e.g. the history of the science of Bible translation and other sub-disciplines of higher-level church history. It should be noted that church history is part of human history, and the history of theology, Christian mission and other disciplines are embedded in it, but have specific highlights. This article is about the understanding and relationship of “intercultural theology” to theology. What can be worked out historically in this regard?

The Origins of the Church – Priestly and Prophetic Ministry

With the biblical Acts of the Apostles the history of missiology takes its course and becomes part of the closely interwoven history of the church. For the first time it takes on a written form. Its historical roots, however, are to be found in the Hebrew Bible, the life and the deeds of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, which were handed down orally until then.

In the Hebrew Bible the future-oriented field of action of the personified Israelite deity JHWH (Ex 3:15-16) is already foreshadowed in the election of a “holy” people. Thus JHWH pretends that the past and future order of election and salvation was and will be based on this deity alone. This, self-revealing deity determines the framework of salvation and election and is not accessible to man. The condensation of world and church history described from a religious point of view in this deity is reflected in the revelation known to us as Holy Scripture. The Hebrew Bible shadows the worldly kingdoms of Israel and Judah with regard to the Kingdom of God, as the sphere of action of the Godhead. We learn that the priesthood and prophethood of the Hebrew Bible continues in the priestly-prophetic orientation of the global Church (Nu 1:49; Dt 10:9; Hb 7:3; Of 20:6). The open canon of the New Testament and the lack of a binding basic text are indications that church history, as part of human history, should be embedded in the divine plan of salvation. Similarly, divine revelation through the real languages Hebrew, Aramaic and Koiné Greek is an important feature of the real presence of the “Kingdom of God” in the space and time of humanity. The absence of a divine metalanguage or a metaphysical revelation points the history of salvation to the here and now.

Eschatologically, the “completion of times” is still pending. This means that church history, in continuation of the New Testament, sees itself as a mirror of the history of the Kingdom of God’s reality. This is where intercultural theology, missiology and mission studies come in, describing the interfaces between secular and spiritual spheres and reflecting the interlocking of church and human history. The history of the global church, above all the ethical and moral realization of the divine will, is at the center. The church unfolds as an area of teaching and learning for believers. As was shown in the Hebrew Bible using the example of the people of Israel, the community of faith should develop globally and locally in the context of the secular world. As a result, contextualized theologies developed, which responded to individual discourses. At the same time, the Kingdom of God thus takes on different contours in different contexts (Haire 2011:36). Wrogemann points to the South American, African, Asian and Japanese theologies, which can be accessed from different sources (2012:28-31). The divine influence of power on and in human beings is expressed both on the personal-individual, the collectivist, and the universal level. In the New Testament a personification of the Holy Spirit in the idealized church is revealed. This is foreshadowed for the future, as the kingdom of God is only fully realized in eschaton (post-historical time). Nevertheless, it is reflected in a mirror-like manner in the different epochs of world and church history. The discrepancy between the kingdom of God, initiated by Jesus of Nazareth and presented as an ideal, and the real history of the church challenges missiology to document and comment on these developments and to translate them into concrete contextualized proposals for solutions. Theology, on the other hand, evaluates and translates the exegetical findings into the present. Contextualization is a fundamental theological approach, which was defined in the 1960s and has been developed since then (Bevans 2011:7-9). If contextualization is now contemplated in “intercultural theology”, this should be thought of within the framework of theology. It is the complexity of approaches that underlies “intercultural theology”. This theological concern would only be possible in a hermeneutics that is capable of taking up this diversity and evaluating it for its own context. Here again the influence of theology on “intercultural theology” is overriding and it is right to ask whether an interdisciplinary difference can be identified and how it is revealed.

A look back at “missiology” and its separation from theology gives indications of how these developments can be evaluated.

Until the late Middle Ages, missiology was part of applied theology. With the emphasis on diaconal work and the mission of the church, which was promoted by Pietism, the scientific possibility of specialization outside theology arose. The end of late medieval monasteries and monastic life due to the rise of industrialization brought with it specialization. The church was challenged to meet the social changes from peasant to working class. Pedagogy (e.g. Philipp Jacob Spehner, *1635-†1705), religious education and active service to others found their way into theological education and its justification. Assignments abroad and an emerging Christian development service through the dissemination of Scripture (Bible translation), as carried out by William Carey, Zinzendorf or American (e.g. ABCFM) and British (e.g. BFBS) organizations, asked for arguments. “Missiology” was born. In the course of history, new realities have developed that influence interreligious, transnational and transcultural discourses. Mobility, the digital revolution, ecological responsibility and ecumenical and interreligious dialogue determine their discourses. Most recently, Müller provided a brief overview of German-language missiology (Müller 1999). In it, he argues that missiology and mission sciences are interchangeable, although accentuations are possible (1999:148). His overview and the graphic representation of the interdisciplinary orientation of missiology can thus also be applied to intercultural theology.

Intercultural theology forms an interdisciplinary interface between the auxiliary disciplines of linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology and education. Within this framework it replaces missiology and missiology as integrating disciplines. The task of intercultural theology is to do justice to the transcultural, transnational and interreligious exchange of Christian cultural mediators as actors.

Future Prospects

Intercultural theology serves a paradigm shift in the perception of global Christian development aid. It is not without reason that it has gained a reputation as a close ally, if not politically motivated actor, in close reference to military-colonialist interventions. Too often, no or a very blurred line was drawn to Western colonialist interventions (e.g. Fabri 1879). In order to cleanse oneself of this accusation, a redefinition of the orientation, accompanied by a change of name, is quite appropriate. This raises the question in the post-colonial age of what intercultural theology is allowed to speak about and from what perspective. It is the binary reaction, which evokes any statement about the ideas of others that pose challenge. This problem is played out on the

1. linguistic,

2. anthropological and

3. epistemological

level. (1) Language cannot fill the epistemological gaps comprehensively. It always remains an ultimate linguistic reservation when metaphysical processes are described. A superordinate universal meta-language is not accessible to us. (2) Ethnographic studies lack objectivity, and the (3) knowledge on which they are based, is also described as piecemeal and dependent on space and zeitgeist.

With these limitations in mind, the deconstructivist approach of inter-subjectivism (see Derrida 1967:25; Carrithers 1992:55) offers the possibility of positioning oneself and conducting inter-subjective research from this subjective position. Because of its proximity to Christian theology, intercultural theology is in danger of adopting dogmas, perspectives and premises that form the basis of its own confessional perceptions. Up to a certain point it is possible to return to an apologetic view and to engage with the critical view of other positions, but then again the own subjective religious perception only allows border crossings to a limited extent. In this case the close connection to foreign positions is a helpful instrument. The social-constructive approach uses the joint development of a research topic as a basis for this. In doing so, the researcher and the object become part of their observations and descriptions (Kiraly 2000:3-4).

At the same time, the newly introduced term “intercultural theology” confronts researchers with the task of filling it with content. It is not self-explanatory in itself. Since the term “theology” basically covers all, at least the monotheistic, but in a broader sense all religious schools of thought. The term “intercultural” points in the direction of religious studies. In real use, however, the proximity to theology, especially Christian theology, is almost confusing. Here it would make sense to speak of intercultural theologies in the plural, which result from contextualized local forms of Christian formations. In this sense, by means of prior investigation and evaluation, intercultural theology conveys other religious or ethnological-linguistic contents in its own space in an ethnographic way. The overlap with religious studies becomes clear at university chairs, such as in Hamburg at the Institute for Mission, Ecumenical and Religious Studies and others.


The literary use of the terms “missiology” and “mission studies” in English-speaking and German-speaking countries reveals tendencies that make the term “missiology” interchangeable with the term “mission studies”. The Anglophone world currently dominates the missiological world and the term “missiology” is becoming increasingly audible. In particular, the technical language from social media and the digital world, such as apps or tools for evangelism and exegesis (Logos, Bibleworks, Microsoft Office) shape the vocabulary. English as the lingua franca of the digital world therefore also determines the missiological space. “Intercultural Theology” takes up both and positions itself alongside “theology” as the discipline, which deals with the actors, historical developments and the future of global Christian development aid and diaconal work in transcultural, transnational and interreligious discourse. In this context, the interdisciplinary approach to the most diverse auxiliary sciences, especially linguistics, anthropology, social sciences, education and psychology, plays a significant role. The priestly-prophetic orientation of the global church forms the framework for Christian development aid and diaconal work. In it, cultural mediation is conceived as an intrinsic phenomenon of divine revelation. Only the diaconal communication of Christian content in other linguistic and cultural contexts provides the church with its actual foundation. The church is not for its own sake, but for others.

The separation of “intercultural theology” from “theology” in terms of content may be judged essentially by its interest in the discourses of the globally active actors. In terms of content, “intercultural theology” in the German-speaking world starts essentially in “theology”. In the Anglophone context, globally oriented intercultural training institutions have developed that have separated themselves from theology. The term “missiology” is preferred there. It is worth noting that German Christian cultural brokers often complete their training abroad in “missiology” or “intercultural studies” in order to then teach and do research in their home country in the field of “intercultural theology”. There is an imbalance here, which leads to different missiological focuses in the academic world.



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[1] The term aims to emphasise the cultural significance of Christian actors in an intercultural context (Höh, Jaspert, and Oesterle 2013:9).